OP-ED: Brutal propaganda war over coronavirus means facts matter more than ever

Trudy Rubin
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Monday, April 6, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Rarely has accurate information been more vital than at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet a global disinformation war is being waged at full force.

China and Russia push conspiracy theories worldwide about the origin of the virus. Autocrats from Cambodia to Saudi Arabia to Turkey censor reporting on the virus.

Meantime, President Donald Trump blasts journalists who question his misinformation, while far-right pundits and social media promote reckless claims about the outbreak.

Here’s the good news, however: For those of you who seek solid information while sheltering at home there is a surprising amount of it to be found.

But first, it’s important to grasp some of the dangerous distortions being promoted about the virus globally — and at home. China tried to distract attention from its early mishandling of the virus by advancing absurd claims — tweeted by a Foreign Ministry spokesperson — that the U.S. Army brought the epidemic to Wuhan.

Meantime, the Chinese government expelled U.S. reporters who did yeoman coverage of the Wuhan outbreak, and muzzled its own media from reporting on its coronavirus failures.

And Beijing is harnessing a vast social media campaign of bots, trolls and state-controlled sites to push a new worldwide narrative stressing its “model” campaign to squelch COVID-19 (making a sharp comparison with the U.S.). It has done this even as many health experts worldwide question the Chinese statistics.

The investigative news site ProPublica has tracked more than 10,000 fake or hijacked Twitter accounts connected to the Chinese government efforts at coronavirus propaganda (with an additional 200,000 frozen by Twitter). The German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy also tracks Chinese propaganda efforts, along with Russia’s.

And, indeed, Russia has also been super active promoting fake coronavirus news while hiding its own statistics. State-controlled TV promotes the thesis at home that COVID-19 was a biological weapon created by the Pentagon to kill as many Chinese as possible

Meantime, after closing Russia’s long border with China, Vladimir Putin did little to address the pandemic until very recently. Doctors are silenced, nearly all national media is controlled, while Moscow currently claims only 76 have died out of a mere 10,000 cases.

“Nobody trusts the government figures announced in Russia,” says the respected independent Russian journalist Natalia Gevorkyan. “Everybody questions how it could be that we have such a long border with China, and so many Chinese workers inside Russia, yet we started so late and have so few cases.”

That has not stopped the Kremlin from mounting a coordinated effort on social media to spread alarm and misinformation about COVID-19 in other countries. An internal European Union report described this effort as aimed at stoking “confusion, panic and fear” to “subvert European societies from within.” Ditto for America, as we learned after the 2016 election.

So it’s easy to understand the goal of Russian and Chinese disinformation. What’s more frustrating is the level of conspiracy theories and misinformation being spewed out in the United States.

No need here to reprise President Trump’s weeks of insisting the virus was under control or was a Democratic Party “hoax.” Or the ongoing daily news conferences where he now promotes unproven drug therapies.

Equally disturbing are false narratives pushed by far-right pundits, including that the virus was manufactured in a Chinese laboratory. Or that it is spread by 5G wireless networks. (Russian outlets have long promoted the idea that 5G digital signals were harmful.)

The ease with which conspiracy theories spread in troubled times makes it all the more vital that Americans have access to fact-based sources. Luckily there are even more such sources available than usual. So let me cite a few that I regularly consult.

During the COVID-19 crisis some of America’s best newspapers are putting select coverage outside their paywalls. So, besides The Inquirer, you can read coronavirus coverage in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. (Given the severe financial hit to newspapers at this time, and the great need for fact-based news, one hopes that those who take advantage of the freebie will ultimately subscribe.)

Beyond print media, think tanks in Philadelphia and Washington have switched their many presentations via Zoom, which you can access for free. So you can tune in to fascinating events at Philly’s Foreign Policy Research Institute, the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House, the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Atlantic Council and more. They send out the link and all you do is click.

For stats on the virus there is the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center.

Both ProPublica and the Alliance for Securing Democracy websites report closely on Chinese and Russian disinformation campaigns.

I could add many more (and will if asked), but hope this is sufficient while you are confined to quarters. Just remember, when you are free to emerge, how important it is to support news outlets and journalists that give you the facts.

— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.